Adventure and Tragedy in the Alps

I'm now home safely in Colorado after a big summer climb that turned out to be full of adventure and fun, but also some challenge, uncertainty, and tragedy. Having visited the Italian Dolomites and the Alps several times, I've always been blown away by the pioneers of the 1930's and 40's like Cassin, Comici, and Bonatti, who set these bold and preposterous lines up massive rock and ice faces the size of El Capitan and often bigger. One of these routes, first climbed by Ricardo Cassin in 1937, ascends the Piz Badile in the Swiss Alps, and is considered one of the six great north faces of the Alps.

Piz Badile looming in the background.

I trained for six months, and in mid-August left with my friend and climbing partner, Eric Alexander. Eric and I have known each other for 20 years; in 2001, we summited Everest together. After layovers, delays, and hours of travel, we rendezvoused at the base of the mountain with our Italian friend Marco Bergamo, an amazingly fit guide who I'd met a couple years ago on another classic climb of the Marmolada. Marco would be our rope gun, our secret weapon in moving fast up the 27 pitches of technical climbing and 3,000 feet of vertical granite, with several pitches of 5.10.

Hanging out at the Sasc Fura Refugio. Left to Right: Marco, Me, Eric.

We approached from the small mountain town of Bondo, up a long dirt road cutting through a narrow river valley and along an equally steep rocky trail to the Refugio of Sasc Fura; Europe is known for these crazy structures, built by helicopter high up on glaciers or tundra, and often perched on the edge of dramatic cliffs. We arrived at Sasc Fura in the pouring rain and hung out for a few days, hoping that the big north face, which is often wet and running with water, would dry a bit. Climbing slick granite cracks and chimneys pouring with water was out of the question. Fortunately, a north wind sprung up, drying the face enough for us to give it a try. We hiked up steep granite slabs and boulders, scrambling to the saddle between the Piz Badile and a neighboring peak, where we shivered the night away. To save weight, Eric and I'd only brought one sleeping bag, which we both slid our feet into and used as a blanket. We built a rock wall around us to cut the cold gusts of wind and (full disclosure) "spooned" together to preserve body heat. As climbers like to say, "What happens in the mountains stays in the mountains."

Eric and me on our "spooning" ledge.

Throughout the night we listened to an adjacent mountain, Piz Cengalo, exfoliate granite. There was a near-constant roar as huge boulders and rubble clattered and tumbled down the face, eventually exploding onto the glacier below. The Alps are a mountain range known for continual erosion, a force that shapes the majestic and rugged fins and spires, so this wasn't unusual activity. Thankfully we, as well as our route, were totally out of the line of fire.

At 5:30 AM, we rappelled down to the starting ledge, which sat hundreds of feet over an ominously steep glacier, and traversed the tricky ledge to the base. The route had amazing climbing, from smooth slabs to dihedrals and hand cracks to incredible Yosemite-style chimneys in which you had to push your feet on one side and back against the other, inching, groveling, and sweating upward. A tough moment happened early on a long leftward traverse. Even though I was on a top-rope, my foot popped off a small hold and I fell, swinging far out to the left. With the rope stretch on our thin ropes, I probably fell 20+ feet down and swung 20+ feet left, slamming onto a ledge. Although shaken, I felt good enough to continue. Adrenaline worked in my favor; I was mercifully numb to the pain in my side that would emerge over the next few days. Turns out, I'd broken a rib.

Climbing on the Cassin Route

Eleven hours later, we merged on to the North Ridge, another classic climb that would lead us to the summit. We followed a knife-edge ridge with some crazy climbing, downclimbing, and traversing - some sections were so narrow it was like riding a granite horse with 3,000-foot vertical drops on both sides!

The Summit Ridge and "Granite Horse"

Another couple hours later, we reached the tiny bivouac shelter that lay on the summit, perched on the edge of a huge cliff; Eric said if I stepped off, I'd want to have a paraglider. The next morning consisted of hours of downclimbing and rappelling into Italy, 3,000 feet down to the Gianetti Hut and then a slippery, steep, and seemingly-endless 4,000-foot descent into a small village, some of the day in the rain.

Summit Party

Summit bivouac shelter

Our climbing window had been perfect. On the descent, a local guide said, "Piz Badile? Wow. It must be a lot harder for you and your guides." I considered his comment and the last few days. Approaching on a 4,000-foot ascent up a treacherous trail, feeling every step with my trekking poles and listening to Eric ring a bear bell in front: Feeling for every hold on one of the Alps’ hard classic rock routes. Downclimbing into Italy, death drops looming on both sides, with Eric and Marco constantly feeding me specific directions. Eric even downclimbing below me tapping the foot holds, a few times even placing my feet into the right ones, then a final six hours of knee and ankle-crushing descending down scree, slippery slabs, and boulder fields while grabbing Eric's pack. I'd taken at least three hard falls, bashing my shins and elbows.

After a pause, all I could think to reply was, "Harder? You might say that."

A tough descent.

At the Gianetti Hut, on the Italian side, we learned the news that would change our outlook on the climb and what it meant. A massive landslide had occurred, shedding away a huge chunk of nearby Piz Cengalo. Over 4 million cubic meters of debris calved off the face and formed a river of rock, mud and water that poured over the tiny town of Bondo, taking out houses, cars, and roads, and cutting off the village. It also destroyed the dirt road and trail we'd ascended just a few days earlier. We heard it was the biggest rockslide the Alps had seen in the last 40 years. We were safe, but stuck since all of our extra clothes, gear, passports, and cash was trapped on the other side of the landslide. This was inconvenient, but overshadowed by the evacuations of the entire town and the 8 people who are still missing. Marco’s truck remains stranded indefinitely high up the valley, atop the dirt road that may never be rebuilt. A helicopter lift may be the only solution. A sliver of good news was that we were finally able to access our rental car which had been parked lower in the valley. The emergency crews had cleared a narrow track through the rubble, so we could catch our flight home. For a last bit of drama, we learned that 30 minutes after we'd escaped with our car, another rockslide swept the road and cut off access again.

Now, a week later, I sit here a little beat up: sore knees and rib, a busted finger, scratches and bruises healing. But I'm grateful for our good fortune, and am keeping the people of Bondo and those who are missing in our thoughts and prayers. These journeys aren't as simple as a motivational poster. They don't always end in perfect triumph. There's adversity and sometimes darkness around the edges, but we commit to pressing forward, not allowing our fears and the risks of living to hold us in the prison of our minds.

Photo Credits: Marco Bergamo